Self-Care: Meeting the Grief of the World with Compassion
by Christy Tennery-Spalding
I can’t tell you when I became an activist. When I did the presentation in sixth grade about endangered gorillas? When I wrote my first term paper about Rachel Carson—my conservation hero—instead of a founding father? When I cried when I learned what genocide was?
I’m not sure.
I can’t be certain, because I have always been in love with this world. Its beauty swept me off my feet from an early age. And because I was so profoundly in love, I think the desire to create a more compassionate world has always been my carbon-fiber core. It’s who I am: a blend of tender-hearted and utterly outraged. The person who cries when she sees stray animals. The person who still rages against injustice, well into her adulthood.
So what also wasn’t a surprise was that fell in with other activists in college in the Bay Area—my tribe of merry misfits. I moved to Canada right after college graduation to stand in front of logging trucks and stand up for Indigenous sovereignty. I took on issue after issue: war, vanishing forests, climate havoc, racial injustice. Watching this happen to my love, this world and her humanity, broke my heart. Not all at once, but a little every day.
Before long, I was burnt out to the core. I couldn’t sleep. I would cry at the sound of sirens and shake at the sight of police cars.
But like all good love stories, there was a twist. I found healing in the heartbreak. I dragged myself to a yoga studio, and found a practice that let me fight for the world, and love her at the same time.
I discovered a relationship with my breath. A way of speaking with my body (even my scoliotic spine) that felt a lot like acceptance. I learned to get close to my own heart, even when it hurt. Even when I couldn’t do a damn thing to stop the trauma and grief of the world.
Learning to take care of myself gave me respite from the physical and emotional pain that I had created for myself. I could see glimpses of why I got into the world-changing racket to begin with: the world is beautiful—and there are compassionate human beings willing to fight for her.
I don’t want this to sound like I stepped onto a yoga mat, and all of my problems disappeared. Au contraire. If anything, that’s when my real problems started.
When someone first rips the veil, it is tremendously painful. Things had been dire, sure. But seeing behind the illusion a bit was tough to reconcile.
I had to learn to accept ideas of non-attachment, of loving-kindness for people I had considered enemies. I had to relate to my body as something more than a vehicle for my work. To say that it was slow going at first would be a colossal understatement.
But I stayed. Even when every fiber of my (admittedly traumatized) nervous system told me to leap up from my mat and run. I stayed with it. I learned to relax. I learned to trust. Even when my yoga mat was more life-raft than magic carpet. Even when all I could do was lay over a bolster and cry.
What I know now is that everything is a long haul. Our practice. Our world.
There is no easy fix for any of it. There is no switch we can flip that will protect our communities or our planet. We cannot shut down our hearts to shield them from what is happening on our planet right now. The only solution is to stay in our compassion — and remember why we are bothering to build a better world.
I am doing this because my liberation is bound up in yours. We are not free until all of us are free. So, how do we keep doing this, even when it breaks our hearts?
We look after ourselves. We treat ourselves with care that acknowledges our essential nature: deeply precious and worthy of love. This is a practice, in the face of a world that may insist that we are disposable. And though it may be difficult — to offer ourselves that care — it is a gift to stay with it.
What I now know is that self-care is an act rebellion — a reclamation of our worth. It is also the only way we can truly have the more compassionate world that we are dreaming to life. Our care belongs to us, and we are already worthy of it.
Listen. I won’t tell you that I don’t still feel heartbroken. That I don’t cry when I hear stories of the deep injustices of the world. I do. I feel all of that deeply. But I am able to carry on—and dare to do bold things on behalf of our planet—because I am fortified.
I have a deep well from which to draw, because I have loved myself and cared for myself in the face of the unimaginable. My practice lets me see the cracks of light that flow in. I can see the beauty that is still worth saving. And I am ready.
Christy Tennery-Spalding is a yoga teacher, Reiki master, climate justice activist, writer & self-care advocate. She is the author of Setting Gratitude Free and the creator of Sacred Focus. She lives in Oakland, California with her husband and their feral cats, Dorothy and Harriet. She makes her online home at christytending.com.